Thursday, October 13, 2011

An apocryphal history of the "Smart Phone" (3/2)

The Industrial  Revolution, came in 2007.

In 2007, Steve Jobs descended from his ivory tower and gave us… The iPhone. Which was actually not a phone at all… Steve introduced the iPhone as… "the best iPod ever"… 

The original iPhone was a bit of an enigma. Technically, it lacked a number of modern features (the original iPhone couldn't do Picture Messaging, didn't use the fastest connection available at that time, and had a relatively poor quality camera).

But also added a few that were nothing short of revolutionary. No other phone, no other mobile device, at that time used a glass screen (glass is really difficult to manufacture compared to plastics). Or a directional sensor so it could detect it's orientation. Or used "multitouch" in a touch-screen concept. Or touch-based zoom. Or a touch-screen without a stylus, for that matter...

Looking at this list, you could say that Apple, in its "iPhone Culture", abandoned technologies that existed-but-were-not-used and added technologies it felt would vastly improve the user experience.

By doing this, Apple succeeded where all others had failed. The iPhone was responsive and intuitive. It was the "phone you wanted to use". And even with a slow connection, the thing felt fast. Which turned out to be more important than the actual megabits/second you could transfer.

Though, like the first steam engines don't compare to the modern internal combustion engine, the first iPhone, while revolutionary, was nothing like what we have today. In a few short years and at fairly regular intervals, the iPhone got upgraded.

It learned faster connections, how to copy/paste, a better camera, send picture messages, listen to voice commands, video chat, and, especially important, it learned to add apps.

The smartphone civilizations had rediscovered the concept of "apps" from our Ancient Times. And now these apps could be bought directly from the smartphone (rather than requiring a computer first). Many of the apps had to be paid for, but the price was kept low (an important lesson learned from the iMode and iTunes successes) which made it very easy for people to buy them in the millions.

Apple had set a new standard. And the bar was set extraordinarily high. Nokia had never given its competitors that big a run for their money.

Actually, the iPhone Culture was so far ahead and different, that the old mobile phone civilizations were left behind stunned and embarrassed. Nothing they had even came close. Some are still stunned today (Nokia), or are all but extinct (Siemens, Palm). And smaller ones suddenly found new vigor and opportunity to grow. HTC and Samsung first among them. This opportunity was found in the Android Culture.

The Android-culture made it's real entry into the world, and acted as a kind of counter-movement to the iPhone Culture's (which demands you to be part of the Apple Civilization), but being the closest alternative to it. Many tribes and civilizations jumped at it to quickly bridge the gap with iPhone Culture. Although to date, Android Hippies are still seen as the iPhone Yuppie's "less stylish" and "more clumsy" cousins.

Love it, or hate it, the iPhone, and Steve's vision behind it, was what was needed to finally spark the Mobile Internet Revolution. Mobile Internet usage rose with over 5000% in AT&T's network in the few years after the iPhone was released.

So, in the end, what we now, quite commonly, refer to as a 'smart phone' has had quite a history, for its short lifetime, but a key thing that seems to be a defining characteristic of it would be the capability to combine several sources of information and provide new and interesting things with this to the user.

Initially mostly very serious and businesslike, with calendaring and e-mail, but increasingly frivolous, apocryphal and more fun, with things like Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter now available, in some workable sense, from the palm of your hand. 

Smart Phones, or rather, what the people using them, can come up with is actually quite exciting. More than what Sony-Ericsson, Samsung, HTC, or Nokia, allow us to do with the phones, the people are thinking of new things they want to do. And 'apps' have allowed these things to become available on the phones in an amazingly fast way (no longer requiring a new phone to be released to incorporate the new feature).

And with this, a rather lengthy and roundabout way, I hope to have given an idea of what makes a modern "Smart Phone". And how it came to be.

(*) Image (c) Apple Inc.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An apocryphal history of the "Smart Phone" (2/2)

Barbarians conquered Rome...

And after the relative enlightenment of the Pax Romana came the Dark Ages.

But somehow, a tiny corner of civilization had survived and thrived. Where things were horribly failing in Europe, in Japan, the "iMode" service had taken off already several years prior. And it was a hit. But iMode "was not" something that WAP "was". It wasn't about technology. What it was, was about things people wanted to do. And, in Japan's case, about things young people wanted to do.

These were two rather interesting differences with the assumptions made by the "big phone operators" in Europe and the US. They aimed the 'smartphone' at relatively righ business users, charged a mint, and didn't consider teenagers and students as a cash-able market. They didn't just miss out on the opportunity of mass-marketing, they also missed out on listening to what people actually wanted to buy.

In Europe, phones were boring. Even the smart ones.

In Japan, the phones had colour screens, could play 'polyphonic ringtones' (the ability to 'beep' in different shades of 'beep'), were 'always online' using (again) faster internet and many of them got a built-in camera. And the phones got a very special feature... Many of them grew a tiny metal loop somewhere at the bottom.

No business person could imagine what it was for. Neither could their 'smart' phones.

Teenagers, students, and (statistically significantly more) girls and women, however, could. They all attached "Hello Kitty" phone decoration accesories to it.

All of these new things a (smart)phone could do sparked a new revolution, a Renaissance, if you will...

Slowly the new ideas drifted across the globe, new thinking about use of phones and networks. And "listening" to what the consumer wanted. The time of the first iPod and MP3 players had dawned. The idea of 'multimedia' phones started to trickle through. As a result, the networks learned how to send picture messages, and the phones learned how to play music.

The age of the camera-phone had arrived. Funny thing though, hardly anybody seemed to be using it… Too cumbersome, too expensive and too difficult, compared to texting… But apparently we liked being able to put a picture in our addressbooks, as nearly every phone in the market spawned a lens…

Especially potent seemed to be the combination of Phone with MP3 player. Sony relaunched its "Walkman" brand as MP3-player phones. And it was convenient, you didn't need two gadgets anymore to make phone calls and to listen to music.

But despite what all the 'seers and sages' of the large telecom companies were predicting, normal internet was still not something phones did. And "mobile data" was still not a big thing for the operators.

Mobile internet was still too expensive. Still too slow. Not just the connections, but the phones themselves were slow. Really, really, slow. And their screens too small for proper browsing.

There seemed to be something blocking real progress there, something in the way mobile phone people were thinking that did not match with what consumer people wanted. In that sense, the lessons of the WAP cataclysm were never fully understood.

It was time for the Industrial Revolution...

[*] Image (c) NEC